20 Years of Education in the North East | Living North

20 Years of Education in the North East


Image of pupils looking at a map
We ask the principals of some of the North’s best-performing schools to reflect on where education has come in the last 20 years, the direction they believe it will take in the future, and how they are preparing their students to face whatever challenges


For Linda Ibbott, Assistant Head of Durham High School for Girls, the tailored opportunities offered within the single-sex education provided by this high performing institution ensures that all pupils develop in an ambitious and nurturing environment. 

Where we’ve come in 20 years: ‘Education must always develop to reflect the times and Durham High School has seen massive changes since its beginnings in 1884. Unusually, science had prominence from the High School’s early days. Although in the 1930s the facilities consisted only of a sink, two wash stands and a gas ring, girls were still being prepared to study medicine. It is impossible to imagine the reaction of those early pupils to the new, state-of-the-art labs in which students now study chemistry, physics and biology. Indeed, since the High School moved from its original location in the centre of Durham to its present site on the outskirts, an on-going building programme has also seen the addition of other new facilities – including a library and ICT suite to facilitate all-important independent learning and research skills.’

Where we’re going in 20 years: ‘It is impossible to predict what challenges will be faced by our pupils in the future, as the world is changing at a dizzying rate. What we do know is that the High School will remain dynamic and future-facing, always adaptable and responsive, preparing girls for careers not yet invented. Some aspects of the curriculum may well be just as recognisable to our students now as to our first pupils. But they will also now need to be critical thinkers, highly adaptable in a rapidly changing world; entrepreneurship may well be on the timetable, while the ability to ‘think outside the box’ may be just as important as maths.’

How we’ll get there: ‘As the only all-girls school in County Durham, we are passionate about the benefits of a single-sex education, for girls in particular. It’s well known that girls benefit from being in an environment that provides an education geared specifically to their needs. Here, girls of all ages have the space in which their confidence and leadership skills can blossom without the gender stereotyping which can, even in the 21st century, limit girls’ aspirations. Whatever she wants to be – nuclear engineer, doctor, fashion designer, lawyer, actress or athlete, just like some of our recent leavers – it is our aim to support and guide her.’



Tony Jackson, Headmaster of the co-educational day and boarding Barnard Castle School, believes the key to his students’ current and future success lies in the nurturing environment created, and celebrated, within this North East institution. 

Where we’ve come in 20 years: ‘One of the biggest developments here in the last 20 years is the focus on the environment in which our young people are growing up in. Children are only going to come close to maximising their potential if they feel comfortable and secure. So now we’re very clear on creating that supportive environment here, and that’s our foundation for everything else: you can’t build the academic, sporting, artistic and social success of a school if you haven’t got that foundation in place. 

‘The young men and women who leave here are exactly the type of people in whose hands you’d want to leave the future of our country. That’s a huge credit to them, and to what they get here.’

Where we’re going in 20 years: ‘Soon we are going to have an environment that is dominated by artificial intelligence, which will do the vast majority of jobs for us. We are going to be faced with a workforce that is not only unemployable, but irrelevant – and that is of significant concern. Our job is to do two things. We have a responsibility now to not just say: here are three A Levels, off you go. We also have to keep an eye on these developments. Therefore, we must continue to provide our students with the best opportunities to make waves in that changing environment – and that comes back to their soft skill development. What are the things that AI won’t be able to do? They won’t be able to build trust, make moral judgements, manage, lead or inspire people, and that’s all down to those soft skills that I see being taught here every day.’

How we’ll get there: ‘It’s about making sure that our curriculum is absolutely focused academically, because that will still open a door, but we also have to put a huge emphasis on developing these soft skills. Our students have to learn these subliminally on a day-to-day basis, and then we have to bang them over the heads with them when they’re 16! One way we do that is through new qualifications like the EPQ, which is the best thing to have happened in British Sixth Form education in the last 10 years. It stands for Extended Project Qualification, where a student can choose to do either a 5,000-word thesis on any topic they want, or they can construct an “artefact”. 

‘We recently had a reprise where we chose five EPQ students to present their projects, and just to see the range of interests that those students were displaying and their confidence in talking about them was phenomenal. The really great thing is that they’re applauded for those interests; it carries great kudos in the school. So it goes back to that environment we create here, which is key to everything.’



Headteacher of Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate Steven Jandrell believes that the breadth of academic, creative and vocational opportunities afforded by the co-educational boarding and day school’s unique structure holds the key to his students’ successful progression in their future careers. 

Where we’ve come in 20 years: ‘We have always been known for our superb and constantly evolving facilities, which enrich the education and campus life at QE. These support the extensive activity programme that we offer across the whole Collegiate, and it is in these activities that students develop the wider skills and confidence that will be so important to their future lives. There are well over 100 activities available every week, because we want to cater for our students’ many interests and not limit their possibilities. We ask all members of our community to aspire to the QE standard – “to be the best that I can with the gifts that I have” – but we cannot make this a reality if we do not cater for each student’s unique gifts.’ 

Where we’re going in 20 years: ‘We have developed our sporting provision greatly and this will continue to be an important area for us: offering high quality sport to all pupils, as well as performance sport courses for those who want this specific focus. Our intention, over the next few years, is to offer similar programmes for those with an interest in music and drama. We already have a strong tradition in these areas and our theatre – which offers an extensive programme of professional and in-house performances – provides a high quality venue for those interested in performance.’ 

‘Another area for growth will be Thrive@QE – a programme of pastoral support for students which involves a wide range of sessions that they can access when facing specific challenges. This encourages students to be pro-active in nurturing their own well-being, enabling them to become more resilient and independent.’

How we’ll get there: ‘One of our main strengths is the fact that we have four separate schools within one Collegiate. The advantages of that are we maintain a small school atmosphere – with the Heads of each school and their teams knowing their students individually – while having the breadth of curriculum and extra-curricular opportunities of a much larger organisation. This gives a real wealth of choice to our older students, with two separate senior schools from the age of 14. The College offers a traditional academic focus with GCSE and A Levels, while the Faculty offers a much wider range of academic, creative and vocational courses. This allows for a more bespoke approach to subject choice, which facilitates a wide range of opportunities for progression beyond school.’



For Amanda Kirby, Joint Head at Cundall Manor School, it is the new, exciting and immersive experiences that the institution is able to offer its students that is the greatest testament to its longevity and future ambition. 

Where we’ve come in 20 years: ‘We are an extremely busy school and there is often a cacophony of activity here. We are famed for our fun and daring events, such as the annual Go-Kart race or the Trebuchet Challenge, not to mention the axe-throwing and archery on offer. Over the past decade, the school has grown to this thriving, diverse, inclusive and successful community we see now, and we are particularly proud of the recent investment we have made in our facilities over the past few years.’

Where we’re going in 20 years: ‘At Cundall Manor, we know that children learn best when they are immersed in what they are doing and practical activities are often the most effective way to engage children in learning. Using the great outdoors and engaging in opportunities beyond the classroom provide ample opportunity to get hands-on. Resilience and independence are key for the future, and it is hoped that by giving our children experiences beyond the classroom that deal with the whole child, and not just their academic achievement, we provide them with the skills to go out into the world and deal with any situation that they come across.’ 

How we’ll get there: ‘We provide an experience here which is unique, friendly, supportive and caring, which turns out happy and successful young people. We know we deliver an excellent all-round education, allowing our pupils to thrive not only in the classroom and in exams, but also on the sports field, on the stage and wherever else fuels their passion. We nurture each students’ talents and encourage all of our pupils to grow, work hard and become confident, polite individuals.’



Dr John Hind, Principal of Dame Allan’s Schools, largely attributes the enduring success of his institution to how its unique structure enables students to maximise the educational and extra-curricular opportunities it provides.   

Where we’ve come in 20 years: ‘Our co-educational Sixth Form is housed in the purpose-built Queen’s Building, and its opening by Her Majesty The Queen in 2005 was one of the proudest movements of the Schools’ recent history. But as well as the significant improvements in teaching facilities and equipment at the Fenham site over the last 20 years, it might be argued that the greatest development has been the building of the Junior School at Hunter’s Moor. Not only did this allow us to consolidate provision for our youngest pupils (previously spread between Fenham and Forest Hall), it has also allowed us to provide first-rate facilities for them both inside and outside the building, enriching the lives of all the young people who pass through the school.’ 

Where we’re going in 20 years: ‘We wish to continue doing what we have been doing for 313 years: namely, offering the ‘proper education’ Dame Eleanor Allan tasked the schools she funded to provide to boys and girls in 1705. Of course, we shall have to change with the times – Dame Eleanor would, I am sure, have found the chrome books we now provide for all pupils somewhat confusing – but the essential principles of a Dame Allan’s education should change little: a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to challenge both oneself and received opinions, coupled with an awareness that life is about more than personal successes and achievements, because we are all ultimately measured by the way in which our lives interact with those around us. A sensitivity to the needs of the wider world and a willingness to do something to meet them will, I hope, mark out Allanians in 2038, as they do our pupils now.’ 

How we’ll get there: ‘The Schools’ main USP lies in our diamond structure: that is, our provision for co-education for our youngest pupils, aged 3-11, in our junior school; boys and girls are then educated separately between the ages of 11-16; then there is a return to co-education in the Sixth Form. We believe that boys and girls learn differently in the early years of secondary education and that teaching them separately allows staff to provide appropriate education for their classes. The curricular offering to boys and girls is the same, our staff teach classes in both schools and the extra-curricular programme is co-educational – the only exception being sport – so that boys and girls have equal access to the wide range of activities the Schools offer. Teaching the pupils separately also allows us to meet their differing pastoral needs effectively by providing tailored teams and structures for each, meaning that staff are only ever dealing with a relatively small number of pupils. In short, we have the pastoral advantages of being a small school, but with the ability to offer a wide curriculum.’

Published in: February 2019

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